In familiar tale, Haiti construction project displaces residents
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In familiar tale, Haiti construction project displaces residents

More than four years after a devastating earthquake razed much of Haiti’s capital, the government has rolled out an ambitious construction project that it says will revitalize Port-au-Prince. Critics of the project, however, point out that it has already begun to displace residents just recently returned to their homes, in a narrative that parallels similar situations in other countries throughout the region.

The 7.0-magnitude quake that hit Haiti on January 12, 2010, left much of the capital in rubble and forced more than 2.3 million Haitians out of their homes, straining the infrastructure in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country to its breaking point. Recovery has been slow, with many people only recently moving out of temporary housing and some buildings still lying in pieces.

The Haitian government has promised to change that with the new project, which officials say will transform the capital into a modern, attractive city. Harry Adam, the official in charge of the government agency responsible for public construction, says the country has to “rebuild better,” though he acknowledged that the effort could take at least another decade.

Residents and rights groups have questioned the government’s eagerness to break ground, particularly when many Haitians are still displaced from their homes.

Immediately following the earthquake, as many as 1.5 million people were living in 1,500 informal camps around the capital. Those numbers have decreased significantly over the last four years, with the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) at about 146,600 as of the end of 2013, and current estimates placing the total of IDPs at about 100,000.

While many of the former camp residents have been resettled or found housing, a number were also evicted by private landowners. The International Organization for Migration estimates that 16,118 families were evicted from camps between July 2010 and December 2013.

Even though some have been able to return to more stable living conditions, many Haitians still feel uprooted. A survey of families living near Port-au-Prince found that almost three-quarters of those polled still considered themselves to be living in a state of displacement, even if they were no longer in the emergency camps.

And many residents who were just recently relocated from tents in the camps to apartments in the city find themselves being forced out yet again — this time by bulldozers and government officials with blueprints for tree-lined streets and a 75-acre downtown “administrative city.” Some poor residents claim they were given only minutes to vacate their homes before the demolition equipment arrived.

Clearing homes to make way for stadiums

The story may sound all too familiar to anyone that follows the effects of such megaprojects in impoverished neighborhoods across Latin American cities, where so-called progress, rather than providing the residents with any benefits, often comes at their expense.

Since winning hosting rights for both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics, Brazil has been in a flurry of construction activity, often right on top of existing neighborhoods. Some of the people most impacted by the projects are the estimated 11 million residents of the country’s densely-populated favelas, or slums, many of which sit in the path of planned highways or new buildings.

Many favela residents do not have access to lawyers or possess a clear understanding of the legal procedures behind an eviction, leaving them unable to fight against the officials who come asking — or demanding — that they leave their homes. At the beginning of 2014, activists in Brazil estimated that as many as 250,000 people across the country were facing eviction as a result of projects like stadium construction and widening of roads.

Part of the progress

Major international sporting events are not the only justification for such evictions. Poor residents also experience displacement as a result of economic growth projects.

Few places demonstrate this more clearly than Buenaventura, Colombia’s largest port. This city of about 500,000 mostly Afro-Colombian residents processes more than 60 percent of all the commerce contributing to Colombia’s booming economy. Yet the city itself, rather than reaping the benefits of the billions of dollars of goods that move through the port, is besieged by astronomical unemployment rates, a lack of basic services and violence so extreme that the government sent Marines into the city earlier this year.

While Buenaventura’s residents struggle with a near-total lack of state investment, local institutions move ahead with development projects, including a major port expansion, secondary port construction and widening of several highways leading to the city, even as these projects have been plagued by corruption and extensive delays.

The mayor’s office has unveiled a plan to build a gleaming new boardwalk along the city center waterfront, complete with five-star hotels and gourmet restaurants to appeal to the business travelers the city hopes to attract. In order to begin, the municipal government first plans to relocate more than 3,400 families currently living in the zone slated for construction. The relocation site is a neighborhood located several miles away, with only occasional running water and electricity and limited access to the ocean, the primary source of income for most of these families that make their living from fishing.

As the municipal and national governments continue to promote the development they have planned for Buenaventura, residents ask why they are not included in the progress that will supposedly benefit their city.

“It’s not that we’re opposed to development,” said one resident in a neighborhood within the construction zone. “It’s just that we want to be part of it.”

With their revitalization project, the architects of the new Port-au-Prince have an opportunity to make Haitians part of the effort to rebuild their own city. But regional precedents suggest that local residents will be passed over once again, left to pick up the pieces after the bulldozers leave.